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Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers

THE HARD THING ABOUT HARD THINGS

Welcome to the Real World

“The hard thing isn’t setting a big, hairy, audacious goal,” writes Silicon Valley veteran Ben Horowitz, co-founder, with Netscape founder Marc Andreessen, of the venture capitalist firm Horowitz Andreessen. “The hard thing is laying people off when you miss the big goal. The hard thing isn’t hiring great people. The hard thing is when those ‘great people’ develop a sense of entitlement and start demanding unreasonable things.” In other words, most business and management books might offer some basic advice, but according to Horowitz, they don’t really help the “hard things” about a situation. “The hard thing isn’t dreaming big,” he writes, ending his litany of examples. “The hard thing is waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat when the dream turns into a nightmare.”

No Recipe

Horowitz, who was also co-founder of the software firm Opsware, knows a thing or two about nightmares. The stories of his Silicon Valley adventures can best be described as harrowing. There was the time, for example, that Opsware was about to lose its largest customer, EDS, which accounted for an astounding 90 percent of its revenue. The loss would have meant sure bankruptcy. The Opsware team transformed the EDS account decision-maker, a bitter man who thought life was against him, from a sworn enemy into an ally by responding to his personal needs.

The EDS rescue and many other cliffhanger experiences make Horowitz eminently qualified to write a book about how to take on the hard things. He is quick to point out, however, that The Hard Thing About Hard Things doesn’t offer a recipe for dealing with challenges: “There’s no recipe for really complicated, dynamic situations,” he writes. However, “there are many bits of advice and experience that can help with the hard things.” Horowitz intersperses detailed stories from his experience with straightforward advice on such topics as “when things fall apart,” “take care of the people, the products and the profits — in that order” and “how to lead even when you don’t know where you are going.”

One of the first bits of advice in the “when things fall apart” section that Horowitz offers is to forget positivity. Like many CEOs, Horowitz thought it was up to him to shoulder all the bad news alone. Then he asked his blue-collar brother-in-law about a senior executive in the brother-in-law’s company. “Yeah, I know Fred,” his brother-in-law said. “He comes by about once a quarter to blow a little sunshine up my a**.” “At that moment,” Horowitz writes, “I knew that I’d been screwing up my company by being too positive.”

Other lessons in the “when things fall apart” section include the right way to lay people off, how to demote a friend, and how to fire an executive. Firing an executive, he writes, begins with the recognition that, with the exception of ethical transgressions, you are firing the executive because you have made a bad choice in the first place. “The reason you have to fire your head of marketing is not because he sucks,” Horowitz explains. “It’s because you suck.” He then lists a series of mistakes made in the hiring process and suggests paying attention to them for the next executive hire.

Many business books have quotes at the beginning of chapters, and this book is no exception. But don’t expect to find Sun Tzu or Winston Churchill; Horowitz draws his inspiration from hip-hop artists who “aspire to be both great and successful and see themselves as entrepreneurs.” And indeed, a quote from Kanye West captures the no-nonsense, grounded wisdom of this insightful read: “This is the real world, homie, school finished…”

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